Commentary

Saunders: Why punish students by sending them home?

bsaunders@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

“Roast me, eat me, pull my ears out by the roots. But whatever you do, please don’t throw me in that briar patch.” -

Bre’r Rabbit

Of course, the briar patch is precisely where the sneaky ol’ protagonist in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories wanted to be thrown. To him, the briar patch represented freedom.

If today’s students are anything like those of previous generations, that’s how some of them feel upon learning they’ve been suspended from school – as though they’ve received a 3- to 10-day vacation.

“What? You mean you’re sending me home on purpose? Cool. I’m outta here, yo,” jubilant juvies have been saying ever since suspensions were invented, basking in the freedom to hang out at the pool hall or play video games.

During my own unillustrious school career, I was suspended on myriad occasions for legitimate reasons, but I also received that coveted golden ticket – aka the 3-day suspension slip – for such seemingly innocuous conduct as wearing a hat in the hallway, chewing gum in class, passing a note from my buddy John to Nancy that Mrs. Raulerson intercepted and for saying the word “damn.”

Debbie Pittman, assistant superintendent of Durham Public Schools, said that school system is seeking alternatives to suspensions. “We want to teach, re-teach and get them back on track,” Pittman said of students engaged in inappropriate behavior. “We want them to be successful.”

One way they’re trying to ensure they succeed, she said, is by “letting students know what’s expected of them on the front end and by standardizing behavior.” For example: “Chewing gum may be OK in one teacher’s class,” she said, “but may not be in another’s.”

Durham is also addressing the suspension problem with its Second Chance Academy, a program started in April at the Emily K. Center to provide an alternative to simply kicking kids out onto the street. In the program, which has since been expanded and is now at W.G. Pearson, 18 to 54 middle school students facing short-term suspensions can continue their schoolwork there in lieu of being sent home.

In Orange County, Student Discipline and Safety Officer Mike Gilbert said there is a “boomerang program” that works with the YMCA and allows students to continue their studies even while suspended. He said he is investigating other ways to keep kids in school.

In a news release praising the academy, Durham Superintendent Eric Becoats called the middle school years “pivotal” to a student’s likelihood of success. A Johns Hopkins University study affirmed that, showing that half of all students who entered high school with three or more suspensions ended up dropping out.

When they drop out, guess who ends up taking care of them?

Yep, we do.

Nobody is proposing that students who are dangerous or disruptive be allowed to run amok. After all of these years, though, educators should be able to come up with more creative and effective forms of intervention or punishment for behavior Pittman called “inappropriate but not super-serious.”

For instance, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote often of the teacher who sent his misbehaving self to the furnace room and made him read and memorize the U.S. Constitution.

There is no evidence that punishment led to him becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but it obviously didn’t hurt.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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